Winning together: conflict resolution tactics for startup founders

As a executive coach I support startup founders, CEOs, senior executives and other tech leaders in their pursuit of entrepreneurial success in Silicon Valley.  Their leadership development goals prioritize enhancing emotional intelligence, improving interpersonal communication and honing conflict resolution skills for managerial effectiveness.  The startup life is often grueling as co-founders face high pressure, high stakes decision-making during the rapid growth of their company.  Harjeet Taggar, former Y Combinator partner, once wrote, “The relationship between co-founders is usually the single biggest risk to a startup in the earliest stages, it’s certainly the most common reason for failure we see at YC.”  According to Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, successful conflict management requires skillful self management, and the ability to separate self-interest from winning solutions “You have to be prepared to see the better idea when it arrives. And the hardest part of that is often discarding your old idea.”

Seasoned entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley recognize that it’s not just the idea, product or timing of a startup that sets the stage for success, but arguably the founders’ ability to work together to tackle emerging problems as a company scales.  It means working through differences aligned in partnership rather than at odds with one another.  Just like the honeymoon phase of romantic relationships, early startup success can mask a lack of effective conflict management skills between founders.  When things are going well, it’s tempting to believe that major conflicts can be avoided.  While the gambling spirit is worn like a badge of honor among successful entrepreneurs, this is one gamble they can’t afford to lose.  Without practicing conflict resolutions skills early and often, they risk losing time and resources battling each other instead of leveraging their collective strengths when they need them most.  Gary Tan, former partner at Y Combinator shared with TechCrunch “Successful co-founders actually embrace conflict, and are constantly in the process of resolving it. If you can’t argue and arrive at the best solution, you’re not doing the work to actually have a real, healthy working relationship.”

So what works?  Evidence-based strategies like those developed by psychologist John Gottman are applicable beyond marital relationships, and have been successfully utilized by other respected startup coaches in Silicon Valley.  Gottman’s research has a proven track-record for both relationship success as well as predicting relationship failure with scientifically rigorous precision.

1.  Aspire to ‘win’ as a team, not as individuals.  

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When your team is busy arguing over every minor detail your competitors are busy winning, and your company is busy failing.  

There’s a saying in Silicon Valley that it’s better to have an A team with a B idea, than a B team with an A idea. Dedicate yourself to operating as an A member of an A team.  Each member of your A team has lived their life aspiring to win on an individual level, using tactics that work best for them as individuals.  The hardest part of submitting to a team is accepting others’ differences and shortcomings gracefully, and carrying on with your best work ethic and respect for others regardless of who’s slowing company progress.  You think “I never would have made that mistake!  This problem could have been avoided if they’d listened to me.”  When oversights, insufficient planning, unclear communication, failed efforts, personal problems, and fatigue set in, they can lead to setbacks in your combined efforts to succeed as a team.  Adopt the mental framework that ‘winning’ is modeling cooperation and flexibility, ‘losing’ is fighting to get your way all the time.  Winning is practicing humility and accepting constructive feedback because it sets the best stage for improvement.  Are you using tactics to succeed as a team or are you using tactics that are better suited to individual success?  Are you willing to do whatever it takes to make progress as a team?

2.  Recognize that company success is tied to your team’s willingness to trust one another.  By working as part of a founder team, you are acknowledging you are better off working together versus alone.  If you agree to build something with someone you are agreeing to rely on them, and you must also be reliable.

Founders of a company are gambling on each other, and there is no way to gamble without trust.  Partial trust begets mistrust.

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Can you trust that your cofounder has the best interest of the company at heart? Are you both committed to making the relationship work and the company successful?  If you are not all in, you introduce risk to the foundation of your company.  Trust functions to give team members a “reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”  By agreeing to work with and rely on one another, you’ve accepted that each person adds important value, unique insights, and specialized abilities that compliment yours.  By giving this to one another you maximize the time and attention you have for your own contributions instead of using your energy to raise doubts or second guess others’ work.

 

3.  Attempting to track and keep score of who’s working harder or contributing more ‘worth’ wastes time, fosters animosity and reduces positive synergy. 

Everyone’s best effort looks different, so spending time making comparisons rarely produces progress for the relationship or the company.

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According to University of Illinois psychologist Brian Ogolsky and Texas State University’s Christine Gray, people who keep score in their relationships damage their potential for healthy relationship maintenance because the very act of counting implies a lack of trust, rigidity, and negativity.  Co-founders and team members should aim to delegate responsibilities based on ability and expertise, and if a continual imbalance in the workload emerges, plan to discuss this as a team to solve for more efficient allocation of tasks that factors in individual strengths, resources and availability.  Avoid placing blame when ever possible, and focus on actionable solutions that are tied to current circumstances.  The potential for success is maximized when everyone’s strengths are being efficiently utilized in real time.

 

4.  Create space for differences in opinion- exploring these differences will generate the most ingenuous solutions.  Aim to facilitate a wide range of possibilities, and take an objective approach to problem-solving.

Even if you don’t agree with a particular solution, it’s more effective if everyone shares their vision how this solution could result in success or failure.

This style of debate fosters constructive involvement and reduces power struggles.  If you oppose a decision, it’s not sufficient to point out a suggested plan’s low probability of success.  Research and prepare an outline of alternative action-oriented solutions to share with the team.

5.  Pay attention to people’s feelings.  Conflict will naturally give rise to emotional expression that can work in your team’s favor.  Strong emotional overtones are bound to emerge during a heated debate- take this as a sign that people care deeply about the work, about the team’s success, and that everyone at the table wants to avoid pitfalls.  Identify what people are feeling and why.  Let their answers inform how to proceed based on the expressed ideas.  If the discussion doesn’t lead to an agreed upon direction, rely on people’s primary areas of expertise as a guide for who has the most insight for the final call.  If the plan doesn’t work as out, take part in supporting a change in course quickly to minimize stalled productivity.

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6.  Ignoring reoccurring bad vibes between team members will only lead to bigger problems- resolving conflict is one problem startup founders CAN control.  The sooner you address them, the sooner you can get back to business.

Lastly, if all diplomatic efforts fail, agree to seek outside advice. I always recommend that founders and executive teams establish a range of outside resources (experienced mentors, business advisors, legal counsel) to give your team the insight it needs to resolve conflict.  Having an outsider broker your disagreement will end the gridlock- it’s like couples therapy for co-founders.  This might be what saves your startup from sinking.  Your team should agree in advance to take the advice with the goal of moving past this stage with finality.

 

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And don’t lose your sense of humor!  At fast-growing startups, the sheer magnitude of work should be complemented with some light-heartedness.  Laugh in solidarity at the crazy, silly things that you face together as a team- it will help lighten the mood.  When you look back at this time in your life, those are the things you’ll remember with a sense of gratitude and character-building strength.

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Smart solutions when productivity stalls- perspective is everything

You know that feeling when you’re stalled by something that needs to get done?  Even the most efficient people face roadblocks in their productivity from time to time.  This is especially frustrating for people who are used to completing challenging tasks with relative ease.  I recently met with an accomplished young gaming engineer for executive coaching to support his exploration of new work opportunities in Silicon Valley.  He revealed that he’d struggled for hours to complete a cover letter email, and this left him feeling baffled and weary about the whole process of interviewing for new employment.  We used the session to get to the root of what was creating this stall in productivity, and generated smart solutions based on his personal strengths.  Strategy and perspective makes all the difference.

Working with the Bay Area’s talented tech community has taught me this- the smartest people take it the hardest when their performance and results don’t meet their expectations!  Many have grown accustomed to things coming easily to them and have quickly advanced in their chosen career trajectory.  Early giftedness in STEM can sometimes lead to people develop an identity centered around being ‘brainy and capable’.  It may come as a shock when something as simple as creating a cover letter sidelines them and deflates their sense of efficacy.

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Why does this happen?  Over time, our strengths get reinforced as our primary means of solving problems because they get us from point A to point B quickly and easily.  Since these same strengths are also tied to our sense of identity and self worth, we become less willing to set them aside and use other methods of ‘solving’.  Tasks that force us to operate outside of our comfort zone trigger feelings of frustration because we aren’t as effective as we’re used to feeling, which stalls our productivity.  A guy who’s honed skills as a talented engineer, fluent in the most sought after programming languages will probably not be as adroit at English writing composition and will likely need to give himself more leeway in completing a thoughtfully composed cover letter.

Apply a smart solutions formula when your productivity stalls:
1. Conscious self-awareness.  Identify the evidence in your life (historically and currently) of how and when you have leveraged your personal strengths to achieve good outcomes.  How did your strengths allow you to perform optimally?  Result outcomes might be found in academic, career advancement, kinesthetic/athletic, social/interpersonal, emotional, musical, aesthetic, experiential, operational or other realms of functionality.

“I can recognize times in my life when my skills and abilities have allowed me to make progress, overcome obstacles, and reach important goals that have led me to where I am now.”

2. Balanced self-acceptance.  Scientific advancements in human cognition and intelligence reveal that all people possess strengths and weaknesses relative to their overall functioning.  To expect to function only by means of our strengths is unrealistic.  Sometimes we must be willing to step back from our most comfortable mode of operating and acknowledge certain tasks don’t call for our ideal skill set.

“This task calls for specific skills that I don’t practice as often (e.g. writing English composition).  I can’t rely on my core strengths to complete it.  I must be willing to feel uncomfortable if I’m to make progress.  So what?  That’s true for everyone sometimes.  If I let this slower pace of progress demoralize me it could stop me from getting from point A to point B.  Any pace will do, as long as I’m trying to move forward.”

3. Realistic expectations.  Plan to break down larger goals into chunks that are achievable and utilize breaks to regain energy.  Attempting to complete a difficult task in one fell swoop doesn’t lead to efficiency, it’s a set up for failure.  When you’re using your brain to work in less familiar ways, expect to take breaks before your mental energy begins to stall so your overall motivation remains strong.  This way you avoid feeling demoralized and progress remains steady.

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4. Shift perspective.  Pay attention to how you’re evaluating yourself- when we only measure our progress based on ‘results’ rather than ‘performance effort’ we can end up feeling ineffective or lose our sense of purpose.  Another coaching client of mine works in a highly specialized area of machine learning/artificial intelligence (AI).  While there has been genuine advances and exciting new applications here in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world, the field remains experimental, and it still requires time-consuming, exploratory research.  Even the most brilliant minds working together face a sense of disappointment when big breakthroughs don’t happen, especially with constant media hype  fueling the AI frenzy.  If you are working on the cutting edge of new scientific discovery, it may be difficult to quantify progress and demonstrate measurable value compared to an ever-changing larger community.  While it’s natural to want to make comparisons, track and measure your contributions by ‘showing your work’ rather than evaluating yourself on outcome results alone.  By documenting your steps in the scientific process, generating strategic hypotheses, testing them critically through observations and experiments you are creating a useful path of ‘knowledge’ as you arrive at Type 1 or Type 2 errors, etc.  Find value in documenting how you’ve made progress to better direct your future paths of discovery.

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5. Prepare to use trial and error.  If one particular process of completing a task isn’t coming together, try a different plan of action.  Step away from a task and let your brain absorb the learning and develop new insights.  Go back with fresh eyes in regular intervals and adjust accordingly, and practice applying new insights.  According to the latest neuroscience,  researchers have discovered that moments of creativity take place when the mind is at rest rather than directly working on something.  Since creative approaches are so crucial to success, be sure to give yourself space from your work efforts.

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Bringing it all together:  Discover optimal productivity methods based on your personal strengths and challenges.  Practice applying a perspective that takes into account all the moving parts and your abilities before comparing your pace to others.  Remember that everyone hits roadblocks from time to time; taking this mindful approach and using smart solutions will help you overcome them as efficiently as possible.

Are your dating skills ruining your love life? 4 dumb dating habits to drop.

Most accounts of modern dating describe finding lasting love as more elusive than ever.  Thanks to mobile dating apps, dating has evolved into a finger-swiping game of ‘matching’ with people whose real intention for long-term dating is nearly impossible to determine.  Being an executive and dating coach in the San Francisco Bay Area has given me a front row seat to this phenomenon with an inside view of the good, the bad and the ugly.  The highly competitive tech scene here is also known for having an awkward dating culture where both men and women can develop some dumb habits that thwart their long term relationship goals.  I feel it’s my duty to share them publicly, air out the gender themes I see, and hopefully shed some light on the issue so more people are successful in their dating endeavors.

My clients are bright, healthy, charismatic people who bemoan their dating struggles as real a ‘pain point’ in their life.  In my last article on learned optimism, I outlined the rationale for viewing problems through a positive, solution-focused lens, and how to hold yourself accountable for your role in a problem.  When a client tells me “I’d like to meet someone and settle down into a long-term relationship but I’m having a tough time finding them.”  I’ll ask “What strategies are you using to meet eligible people?  Tell me, what are you currently doing to build a long-term relationship with someone?”  This is when the storyline starts to reveal dating habits that can be major roadblocks to developing a lasting romantic relationship.

master-of-none-5.w710.h473A 30 year old male client of mine shared with me how Season 2 of the Netflix hit series Master of None,(episode ‘First Date‘) struck a chord with him.   In this episode, Dev (Aziz Ansari) meets a myriad of women and for various reasons, experiences failure to launch towards a meaningful relationship with any of them.  In 2015, Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg co-wrote Modern Romance: An Investigation, a book that examined the evolution of dating patterns and coupledom. The concept of ‘overchoice’ in dating, an idea first introduced in Alvin Toffler’s 1971 book Future Shock, and later explored in Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book The Paradox of Choice has become a mainstay in modern dating culture.  Ansari concludes that while having access to more potential mates might be enjoyable up front, it eventually makes the process of choosing and investing in someone much harder, and can ultimately lead to less romantic fulfillment.

Dumb dating habit #1:  Going on a never-ending cycle of first dates, waiting for that ‘love at first sight’ feeling to signal when it’s time to finally pursue someone for a long term relationship.

First impressions are often not a good predictor of who’ll be a good fit for a long term relationship.  In my observation, guys need to take initiative and figure out how to emotionally invest in the process of dating if they want a long term relationship.  A lot of men are stuck in a conundrum when they’re looking for a girlfriend- they feel safer with more options, but more options leads to low emotional investment, which leads to a sense of emptiness, which they fill with more creating more options.  It’s a vicious circle!  Men, start by figuring out what you need to do to care more about the person you’re meeting for a date.

Males are commonly raised to avoid vulnerable emotions, and learn to keep a safe distance from their feelings, especially in matters of the heart.  As a result, they can miss out on developing emotional intimacy with someone because they fail to take an active role in building it.  In movies, men are portrayed as reluctant participants in intimacy – cinematic stereotypes such as the manic pixie dream girl archetype evolved in order to protect masculine identity in the face of falling in love.

REBOOT:  If you don’t work to get inside your feelings and figure out how to genuinely invest in caring about the person sitting across from you, these feelings will not mysteriously emerge on their own.  I know you believe you just haven’t met someone who’s attractive enough, smart/accomplished enough, humble and supportive and interested in YOU enough.  If this storyline is sounding a lot like you, it’s time to see it for what it is – you’ve got to rise to the occasion and take initiative.  Make a real effort to be curious, listen, absorb and relate.  Look at it from an economic perspective- wise investments of all kinds pay off big!

Dumb dating habit #2:  You’re using dating as a way to compete with your friends- in this game the last one to get off the single train wins.  

You’re struggling with choosing someone because you’re too busy rounding out your dating options for more bragging rights with your friends.  A proud 20-something year old guy once told me that he and his male roommates had a world map in their house with colored pushpins in it to represent the countries of origin of women they’d each slept with.  Why?  Because it made them look cool to all their friends, duh!  But do you really want to be the last one who still cares about playing this game?  It’s like you’re that last guy in your middle school friend group who still cares about who has the most/best Pokémon cards.

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Dude at some point, it’s not that crucial anymore!  Eventually, most guys want to be with someone that will stand by them when life gets hard, someone to enjoy private moments with, who will honestly be there for them through the thick and thin of their life.  Meanwhile, do you want to still be scrolling through your phone contacts looking for someone who actually cares about what happens to you? (besides your family!  Not your ex either, she’s probably happily married now with a baby on the way.)

REBOOT:  The price tag for a real relationship is steep, and you need to be willing to pay the price.  Commitment, vulnerability, giving FOMO a grown ass man smack down, and dealing with someone’s shortcomings because they have to put up with yours.  When was the last time you heard of getting something worth having for free?

Dumb dating habit # 3:  Not noticing when your mind magically fills in the blanks in someone’s potential instead of accepting the current reality as it stands.  The problem with this is that your brain gets caught in a vicious cycle of unrealistic expectations.  This can lead to feeling mad and resentful when the person falls short of your version of them. 

Sometimes women can get ahead of themselves while dating, and lose track of the difference between what is reality and what is wishful thinking.  This happens when they fail to notice that someone isn’t demonstrating a consistent investment in getting serious with them.  When you fantasize a million steps ahead about how your next dates will play out together it can lead your brain to believing it should and it will, and then when it inevitably doesn’t, you feel shortchanged and frustrated, but keep hoping things will improve.  Unrealistic expectations can also lead people to cut things off prematurely which is sabotaging your #relationshipgoals.  Confirmation bias  is a form of faulty thinking with plenty of scientific evidence supporting people’s propensity to believe something is true because they would like it to be true. Motivated by wishful thinking, individuals will stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.

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REBOOT:  DO NOT GET AHEAD OF YOURSELF. If someone isn’t consistently making an effort to set concrete plans with you, showing a genuine interest in connecting with you, stop giving him your mental attention!  Be ready to harness some discipline because old habits die hard.  You’re perfectly rigorous about keeping your diet paleo, you’re awesome at limiting your drinking to the weekends, but you let your mind go on a wild goose chase over every text thread in your phone!  You know you’re in trouble if the guy inside your head is always more fun to think about then the same guy whose text messages rarely extend beyond 3 words and you never quite know where things stand between the two of you.  Be honest with yourself.  Why would it make sense to want a relationship with someone who’s hot and cold towards you?  Inconsistency and unpredictability beget failure in building anything of value.  Open your eyes to the people who are making it clear they value you and want to spend time with you.

Dumb dating habit # 4:  You over-rely on dating apps and forget that prospective dating partners are everywhere!  Your attention is buried in your phone and you never (ever, ever) initiate conversation with a stranger for social purposes.  

Pretty much everyone is guilty of digital social isolation these days.  You’ve heard this before from those of us who evolved as human beings before the digital era.  By limiting yourself to socializing through online/text consumption you are actually limiting yourself to a communication method with WORSE social aptitude results not BETTER.  The quality of enjoyment, depth of expression and opportunity to build lasting relationships has evolved over billions of years through face to face communication.  Digital communication on the other hand has existed for a fraction of a mili-second and the jury is out if humanity would even survive if we continue to depend on it with today’s enthusiasm.  It’s not that I think people shouldn’t enjoy all the latest dating apps, follow each other on social media for entertainment, ease and efficiency, but aim to keep practicing your real life social skills.  Every single client who’s taken me up on my encouragement in this area has come back glowing with newfound empowerment and shock, really.  Like “I cannot believe I initiated a social conversation with a total stranger (sober, mind you!) AND DIDN’T DIE ON THE SPOT FROM ANGST.  I CAN DO ANYTHING NOW!!!”  YES!  That is the best feeling!

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5 winning strategies to improve your likability at work and why it matters

“Likability” has become the X factor that distinguishes people’s success at work as the American workforce grows increasingly competitive and diversified.  Demonstrating a high level of likability goes beyond popularity, and is often cited as one of the most influential reasons behind promotion selection and leadership  advancement within a company.  The ability to come across as likable can lead to why co-workers and managers align with some people but not others. Likable people are more apt to be hired, earn a high level of trust and support from colleagues, and have their mistakes forgiven without injuring their credibility and reputation.  A study of 133 managers at the University of Massachusetts found that if an employee is likable and gives a well-organized argument, managers tend to comply with their suggestions, even if they disagree and the employee lacks supporting evidence.

On the other hand, unlikable people are often unaware of how toxic they feel to others, seem to provoke a combative response in others, and over time, develop a reputation of  being ‘hard to work with, or hard to work for’ even if they consistently demonstrate a high level of technical skill in their work role.

The ability to manage your emotions and remain steadfast and positive in stressful situations has a direct impact not only on your performance, but how likable you are to others.  As tempting as it can be to find fault in others, taking on a non-confrontational problem-solving approach encourages people to work in tandem and collaborate with you rather than react in defensiveness and go into attack mode.  A wise, highly successful manager once said to me “it’s never effective to make people feel wrong, even if they ARE wrong.  Shaming people wastes time and energy and reduces morale- causing people to withdraw or retaliate rather than work to improve themselves.”

TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people, and found that 90% of high ranked performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of conflict in order to remain calm and in control. One of the greatest talents of likable people is their ability to neutralize difficult, unlikable people. They use their well-honed interpersonal skills to help disgruntled people feel supported, valued and useful to a team’s success, motivating them to cooperate with others.  If left unchecked, poorly managed conflict and employee grid-lock will sink a company’s success rate fast.

There are various strategies that likable people use to win their co-worker’s trust, appreciation, and support at work.  “Likability isn’t something you are born with, like charisma. It’s something you can learn,” says Ben Decker, chief executive officer of Decker Communications, San Francisco, a training and consulting firm.  To establish lasting, positive connections with people (whether you like them or not), you’ll need an approach that feels authentic to your interpersonal style. Many clients in my executive coaching practice come in to elevate their emotional intelligence skills to complement their highly developed STEM technical skills.  In the beginning, taking a different approach to interacting with others can feel difficult or artificial, but over time becomes easier to employ once you see the positive impact it has on your work relationships.  Engaging in stable, positive interactions at work will always be easier to maintain than constantly navigating awkward or tense work relationships.

Actionable strategies to increase your likability at work:

  1. Aim to communicate empathically with others.  Negative, unlikable people can be draining when they exhibit hostile emotions without regard for how they’re affecting others.  They aren’t focused on solutions because they feel unheard, and want someone to pay attention to their complaints.  You can avoid coming across as insensitive or unconcerned by offering a few short, empathic statements to demonstrate you’ve listened.  Help them see they’ve made an impact on your understanding of the issues they’ve raised, and you value their opinion.  This form of active listening increases your likability because you’ve demonstrated an ability to tolerate other people’s emotional expressions without negating their experience.  Even if you do not agree with them in the slightest, you’ve helped them move away from seeing you as personally contrary or combative.  Their complaints are not being made to generate solutions at this moment in time, but rather to be heard by anyone who will listen.  Refrain from sharing differences in opinion, which will only trigger a combative response style.  Use phrases to help that person feel understood before ending the exchange amicably.
  • “This does sound like a big problem.  I imagine it won’t be easily solved without some planning.  I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on the situation, it’s helped me get some new perspectives.  I’ll spend some time thinking about how to get the ball rolling in the right direction.”
  • “I think this is a really important issue too.  I want to give it the time and attention it deserves.  Now that I’ve heard your take on it, I feel like I can see how it’s affecting people differently.”
  • “This problem has been hard for a lot of people, but especially you, based on what you’re saying.  It seems like you’re doing the best you can, given the circumstances.”

If ultimately it’s your job to generate actionable solutions to the problems they’ve shared with you, it’s better to give yourself time to strategize, gather information, resources and support to optimize your plan of action rather than to engage in a reactive dialogue that won’t generate lasting solutions, and likely only provoke negative responses.

2.  Make time for small talk.  Positive relationships are born from sharing benign personal details.  Showing genuine interest in others makes you likable.  As someone who’s naturally chatty (with a personality style well suited to being a highly interactive coach versus a traditionally unobtrusive psychotherapist) I always enjoy helping people learn and practice the art of small talk.  Likable people make time to exchange simple personal reflections on topics that most people can relate to- favorite past times or culinary tastes, seasonal or local happenings.  Small talk is a time to compare mutual commonalities with the intent of learning something new about a person.  Sharing parts of yourself through small talk helps people feel familiar and comfortable with you and develop a sense of who you are outside of your work role.  I believe there are a few basic rules of thumb to successfully initiate and respond to others during small talk conversations.  These mini exchanges (think 5 -1o minutes) build upon each other over time, and eventually can segue into more in-depth conversations that are mutually interesting and enjoyable.

  •  Be willing to initiate a circumstantially relevant conversation (for example seeing someone enjoy a cup of coffee/tea is a good time to ask what they prefer, then share some small personal details about your own caffeine habits, add some novel experiences if you can to keep it from being too mundane).  Pay attention to the amount that they share and aim to match it, then expand a bit more.  Find out if there’s anything you can learn from them based on what they share.
  • Be responsive to people when they make an effort to begin a small talk conversation with you, and be inclusive of others whenever possible.   Even if you’re having a hectic day, take time to convey you appreciate their conversational gesture and try to refrain from saying how busy/rushed you feel.  If you really are counting on every spare minute that day, let them know you want to come back to chat with them a bit later, and make a point to follow up in some small way the next time you see them.
  • Ask a few people who know you well (family members, room mates, close friends) how they’ve seen you engage in small talk and ask for candid feedback.  What have they observed in your conversational style that works well?  What might be misinterpreted?  Consider any reoccurring themes with the intention of ongoing improvement so that others have easy, enjoyable exchanges with you.

 

3.  Pay attention to what tends to lighten people’s mood, what puts a smile on people’s faces or brings people out of their shell.  A few seconds of generosity with your energy can instantly warm people and makes you endearing to others.  I’ve had clients tell me they struggle to connect with people they have very little in common with, especially across genders.  If  you’ve ever paid close attention to someone who’s incredibly likable, you’ll see their charm often comes from a willingness to admit to not knowing much about something that someone else has a talent for- they’ll make light of this difference and find a way to joke about being less fashion savvy, less gadget knowledgable or less organized than a fellow co-worker.  Complimentary teasing, when done subtly and with genuine appreciation for someone else’s strengths is a fun, positive way to connect to others and increase your likability.

4.  Keep close tabs on your mood, and get in the habit of making micro-adjustments to sustain your comfort, stamina, peace of mind, and sense of humor.  Top performers understand how even the smallest differences in our mood can shape our response style and influence our ability to be creative, proactive and solution focused, and patient with unlikable people and complex problems.  You’ll want to aspire beyond healthy eating and good sleep hygiene and understand what additional influences can tip your mood in the right or wrong direction.  I recently sat next to Silicon Vally venture capitalist Tim Draper during a fundraiser luncheon for non-profit organization BizWorld.org.  He shared with me a few secrets to his success, including the importance of understanding and managing what influences your mood and energy level, taking extra precaution before going into high stakes meetings, public performances, or making paramount decisions with long term consequences.  By learning what helps you sustain your best mood, you’ll not only increase your likability and performance level, but serve as an inspiration to others who see you gliding through life with more ease and less stress.

  • create a varied and personalized list of self-care strategies and implement them routinely into your daily schedule.  (The list should range by category, e.g. time required, ease of access, supplies needed)
  • learn when to pass on extra curricular activities, social events and spending time with people that drain your energy and mood during times you’ll need to rely on your best performance ability
  • invest in resources that help you streamline domestic tasks that take up precious time and energy- whenever possible and affordable outsource tedious household chores so you can invest your time and energy on making career gains and positive social developments.

5.  Keep your eyes on the big picture and don’t sweat the small stuff.  The most likable people find a way to not let minor annoyances become obstacles to their success, and train their brain to notice positivity, hope, generosity, kindness, improvement and teamwork.  They are comfortable using trial and error, steer clear of perfectionistic or overly-idealistic expectations, keep their goals realistic, recognize growth and gains in themselves and others, and manage to find the silver lining in the most challenging circumstances.  Practice.  Then practice some more.  These are all tactics that take time to develop and can become staples in helping you become more likable and effective in your life and work goals.

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Strategies overachievers can use to find happiness and purpose

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Starting a new year is especially impactful for people described as ‘overachievers’.  I work closely with young influencers in the tech community of San Francisco, their struggles are as unique as their accomplishments.  From completing their own annual ‘Year in Review’ life progress report (yes that really is a thing) to calculating their financial growth trajectory against the top 1% of earners, they are quick to succeed at what they set out to do.  Most are well under 35, have founded and successfully run and/or profitably sold a company, and are already making more money than their parents.  Nothing to frown at, right?  Yet if this describes you, you’re probably thinking ‘meh, so has almost everyone else I know.’  It’s no easy feat to be impressive in the Bay Area.

Overachievers are known for their willingness to tackle new challenges, push themselves beyond their comfort zone in order to get ahead of their peers, and are highly effective at solving problems.  Yet high achieving people also tend to privately wonder “Am I the only one who has a hard time relaxing and enjoying myself?  Why can’t I stop worrying about falling behind in life?”  Overachievers invest much of their time investigating what ‘the right’ choices are, and can struggle with making definitive decisions out of fear of making ‘the wrong’ choice.  Committing to a specific career direction, choosing a spouse, or deciding which city to settle down in can all be paralyzing decisions for overachievers.  The painstaking (not to mention endless) deliberation of an overachiever can lead to chronic feelings of dissatisfaction, loss of authentic purpose, and ultimately, a barrier to enjoying the outcomes they’ve worked so hard to attain.

Effective Reframing Strategies overachievers can use to find happiness and authentic purpose:

Redefine Happiness.  Consider how often you think “I’ll be so happy when…or “I can’t wait until…” Stop placing a conditional clause on happiness, it prevents you from valuing your current circumstances as worthy of genuine satisfaction.  Ironically, this thinking style begins as way to sustain motivation and increase tolerance for challenging periods in life.  “I’ll be so happy when I finish this damn Ph.D.” (guilty as charged)  There’s nothing wrong with expecting to feel great once something difficult is over or a life milestone has been met.

  • The Stumbling Block:  When this ‘imagined future’ gets placed so far up on a pedestal that it diminishes your current circumstances, and prevents you from investing in present-day opportunities for satisfaction and joy.
  • The Faulty Logic: “If I let myself be happy with where I am right now, I’ll lose motivation to work hard, and I’ll stop striving for that next level of achievement.”  FALSE.  Work ethic is not driven by avoiding happiness.  You aren’t doing yourself a favor by adopting an attitude of ‘my current life isn’t good enough, and I shouldn’t indulge in pleasure, lest I become complacent’.  Nor does any particular achievement guarantee happiness.
  • The Solution:  Keep your happiness barometer focused on the here and now.  Allow yourself to experience real pleasure and contentment today, it will be the positive fuel that will restore and strengthen you for all your future endeavors.  What if you aren’t sure what makes you genuinely happy?  Instead of measuring every person, activity or experience as an opportunity to advance your station in life, start by asking yourself “Was that fun?”

“If you’re happy, that’s probably the most important thing. Everyone probably has their own definition of success, for me it’s happiness. Do I enjoy what I’m doing? Do I enjoy the people I’m with? Do I enjoy my life?”  Michael Dell, Entrepreneur and Founder of Dell

Redefine Failure.  Consider how often you label a situation or outcome in your life a ‘failure’. Many overachievers are quick to discount and devalue something that didn’t go exactly according to plan.  Part of how people successfully achieve goals is by creating highly specific plans with measurable outcomes.  However, overachievers are prone to self-punitive rumination when things don’t turn out precisely as planned, which leads to pervasive feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy.

  • The Stumbling Block:  Choosing to view something as a ‘failure’ blinds you to the value it can contribute to your life.  Tying your sense of worth to quantifiable ‘wins’ and ‘failures’ robs you of the chance to be a whole person, whose contributions and very existence is valuable beyond achievement.
  • The Faulty Logic:  “If something didn’t turn out how I wanted, it should be considered a fail.  I wasted valuable time and now I’m behind with my life plan.  This failure tarnishes me, and now I’m not as valuable as other people because of it.”
  • The Solution:  Practice finding (and believing) in silver linings.  In every outcome and life experience there is opportunity to learn and grow in profitable ways.  Finding out what problem solving strategies and solutions don’t work and why, developing newfound courage, building emotional strength, practicing patience, gaining insights about how people and groups think and behave, increasing your ability to offer encouragement and compassion, uncovering resilience, experiencing autonomy and teamwork in new circumstances, the list is endless!  The point is, the most successful, well-rounded people derive their critical personal development from all sorts of experiences and are better for it.  Do not short-change yourself by writing off even your worst outcomes as worthless.  Moreover, the value of your life cannot be quantified by successful achievement alone.

Success does not Guarantee Love.  This is a big one. Huge actually.  Many overachievers learned early in their life they are more likely to receive praise for their successes, which feels good- especially when it comes from influential people like parents or primary caregivers.  Alice Miller wrote about this over 30 years ago in the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child.  Being singled out for winning can make us feel special and desirable, increasing our awareness of social status.  Criticism for not achieving can feel rejecting and painful and can lower our sense of self-worth.  Over time, overachievers learn to associate social approval, love, admiration, inclusion, and even intimacy.as being dependent on one’s success.  It’s not that seeking social connections through common interests, values or achievements is misguided.  But relying on social status to serve as the most critical criteria for building friendships or finding a romantic partner can result in relationships that never feel good enough or genuinely fulfilling.

  • The Stumbling Block:   When we use our own version of ‘social status’ (prestigious academic or career achievements, artistic talent, wealth, power, socially recognized intellectual or physical superiority) as the primary focus for building our social circle or selecting a romantic partner, we can lose sight of the most important factors that make relationships feel good and lead to lasting love, happiness and intimacy.  We run the risk of developing relationships that feel inauthentic and insecure.
  • The Faulty Logic:  “My own relative success has led me win approval and special treatment from others.  I’ve also learned to avoid painful criticism and negative judgment by demonstrating superior abilities compared to others.  If I don’t choose someone whom matches or bolsters my success, I won’t feel genuinely good about myself or them.  I can’t really love someone who doesn’t measure up to my expectations for success. 
  • The Solution:  Building opportunities for growth through relationships is a healthy, if not critical part of one’s personal development.  However, overachievers can place a high degree of pressure on themselves to select their social circle strategically, or risk failure in life.  Many will point out quotes from high achieving leaders that suggest all social opportunities should be leveraged to boost one’s personal success.  Business philosopher Jim Rohn “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with” or Michael Dell, Founder of Dell “Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people … or find a different room.”  While this advice has merit, it can be misleading if taken out of context.  It’s understandable to admire and be drawn towards people who show potential to uplift and improve us, but friendship and romance can’t survive without tenets like mutual enjoyment of each other’s company, respect, genuine affection and good will for one another, reciprocal generosity, and willingness to compromise in order to overcome challenges or disagreements.

Further, overachievers can sometimes fail to recognize or appreciate opportunities to learn from people whose personality strengths and achievements contrast with their own.  Overachievers tend to want to find a spouse who ‘has it all’ which often ends up sounding like an ‘idealized and improved’ version of themselves.  Instead, consider what personality styles are complimentary to your own.  Keep in mind people can be ‘Type A’ at work, but ‘Type B’ in social and romantic relationships, or vice versa.  Who you work well with at the office or studio may or may not be who you are best suited for romantically.  People are often happier in relationships that provide an opportunity to balance each other in a way that is mutually beneficial.  So allow some flexibility in how you define ‘smart and successful’, you are increasing your chances for developing healthy, happy  and lasting friendships and romantic partnership.

Finding Direction and Purpose Through Self-Acceptance.  One of the biggest challenges for young overachievers is narrowing down what direction to take their career ambitions. One theme I have heard repeatedly among high achieving millennials in my practice is “I don’t want to just be really successful at something, I want whatever I do to have meaningful social impact.  It’s important for me to be a part of something that leads to positive change in the world.”  What brings them into my office is that in spite of graduating with prestigious accolades or achieving early success in the tech/business sector, they struggle with feeling they are ‘doing the right thing with their life’.  It’s not uncommon for overachievers to experience a surge of perfectionistic career-related FOMO that can be paralyzing and lead to anxiety and depression.

  • The Stumbling Block:  The challenge for overachievers is that they excel in so many arenas that they have less cause for ruling out career choices.  They can often feel pulled in many different directions at once, and experience heightened pressure to always “know what they’re doing, and have a plan”.  Further, many high achievers are so conditioned to rank jobs based on external markers of success that they have a difficult time identifying and valuing their own personal enjoyment as a reason for making choices.  The added pressure to “make a positive difference in the world” creates a feeling of constant unease and intimidation.

“These are kids who will perform to the specifications you define, and they will do that without particularly thinking about why they’re doing it. They just know that they will jump the next hoop.  The fact that we’ve created a system where kids are constantly busy, and have no time for solitude or reflection, is going to take its toll.”  William Deresiewicz, who penned the controversial essay “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” which reads like a self-help manual for ambitious yet internally adrift overachievers struggling to figure out how to navigate life.

  • The Faulty Logic:  I constantly feel like I don’t have enough concrete evidence to feel like I’m making the right major decisions, but I can’t afford to waste time doing things that aren’t part of a successful future.  If I don’t know exactly what I’m doing with my life all the time, I’m failing.”
  • The Solution:  First accept that NO ONE can know with certainty they’re making ‘the right or best choices’ for their own future.  Even people we believe turned out to be highly successful, happy and impressively socially responsible can’t look back and know they couldn’t have done things differently for ‘even better’ results.  The point is, let yourself live your life and appreciate a wide range of experiences, including the lulls and pitfalls.  Personal intuition and wisdom grow from a life full of twists and turns.  Learn to trust your own gut feelings, they are the ultimate decision-making tools for making choices, and you can’t hone these tools without testing them out on different experiences.  Feeling purposeful is entirely personal.  You can gather all sorts of facts, create decision-making diagrams and consider data taken from public opinion.  Sooner or later there will come a time when you cannot and will not know with any degree of certainty that something is going to pan out well.  What you CAN do is trust your future self to have the strength, courage and wisdom to handle the outcome if the day comes when you need to change course.  You’ll use the resources you have available, which will be invaluable wisdom gained from the experience, self-care strategies (you’ve hopefully been practicing along the way) and trusted social support.  That’s all any of us can really do!